The Politics of Bullets


April 3, 2008- Five years after the fall of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the new Iraqi political system created by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in 2003 and then revised by the United Nations in 2004, is still trapped within the boundaries of sectarianism, ethnicity and lack of security. Iraqis themselves who had been subject to all forms of oppression and atrocities by the old regime have become victims to new dictators brought in by the occupying forces.

The first of them was Paul Bremer, the American governor of occupied Iraq who took over after Saddam, and who, for the first time in Iraq, established a political system based on ethnic and sectarian quota representation. Five years on, Iraq is in political chaos with no hope in sight that the country can soon become a real democracy as the American leadership promised before invading Iraq. During his term in Iraq, Paul Bremer enjoyed the right to veto decisions by the Governing Council that he himself appointed. Bremer also used an army of advisers in all Iraqi departments, who were the real ministers and decision-makers in the Iraqi administration.

The fierce political confrontation that erupted between Bremer and the UN Special Representative of the secretary-general in Iraq, the late Sergio de Mello, that ended in the death of de Mello in the Canal Hotel explosion in August 2003, left Bremer as the sole political master in Iraq. It will be recorded in the history of Iraq that the American governor, Paul Bremer, was the one who established sectarianism in Iraqi politics, laid down the foundations of a quota political system, and promoted either directly or by proxy the surge of violence in Iraq by permitting armed militias to cross the borders from Iran into Iraq and by turning a blind eye to the formation and arming of other militias inside Iraq.

US policy towards Iraq in the last 25 years swung from one extreme to the other. During the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war, the US supported Iraq militarily, financially and diplomatically, and pushed its allies in the Arab world to back the Iraqi dictator. The war ended in a no-win situation and cost the Iraqis dearly.

In 1990 US policy towards Iraq went swiftly to the opposite extreme — total siege and isolation of the war-ravaged country. As the US and its allies were preparing for a military push to eject Saddam’s forces from Kuwait, the US State Department started a dialogue with Iraqi opposition leaders in exile. The idea was to prepare a political alternative for the ailing regime.

However, in March 1991 an opportunity to remove the Iraqi leader was wasted when the US and Saudi Arabia agreed to allow him to use his air force against the popular uprising in Iraq.

The US State Department was meanwhile busy in forging close ties with Iraqi “liberals”, encouraging them to mobilise other political opposition forces against Saddam. The creation of a new political group called the Free Iraq Council in early 1991 by Saad Salih Jabr, Sadiq Al-Attia and Hazem Al-Shaalan was a landmark action as many Iraqi opposition figures joined the new group that seemed to have the backing of the US, UK and Saudi Arabia.

The Free Iraq Council was not the only active political group against Saddam at the time. Other political forces also established their own political forums in exile. Arab nationalists, Baathists loyal to Syria, other breakaway factions, communists and Kurds found refuge in Damascus. Islamic factions found support in Tehran, while the so-called democrats carried out their activities in European capitals such as London, Vienna, Stockholm and Geneva.

Between 1990 and 1998 the Iraqi opposition was seen as a political mix, composed of four main political currents in addition to the main parties representing Iraqi Kurds, Arab nationalists, liberals, social democrats, communists and religious groups. Tehran was of course the main political base for the religious current, but there were also a number of religious groups that set up shop in London such as Al-Khoie Foundation, headed by Majeed Al-Khoie, and Ahlul Bait Foundation, headed by Mohamed Bahr Al-Uloum.

After the 1991 war, Iran developed better relations with the Arab world. New offices were opened in Damascus for the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (SCIRI) and the Daawa Party with the help of the Syrian government.

As Iraqi opposition groups were busy gathering support for their future plans in Iraq, meetings and conferences were held, mainly in London and Vienna, to bring all Iraqi political opposition groups closer to a harmonised vision for post-Saddam Iraq. Ayad Allawi, Saad Salih Jabr, Ahmed Chalabi, Salah Omar Al-Ali, Mohamed Baqir Al-Hakim, Muwaffaq Al-Rubaie and many other political figures helped bring these groups together.

There was a broad agreement that the new Iraq should be democratic, pluralistic and at peace with its neighbours. The idea to establish a federal region for the Kurds was floated by Kurdish leaders (Talbani, Barzani, Fouad Maasoum and Mahmoud Othman), discussed thoroughly in London, Vienna, Geneva and Stockholm, and was broadly accepted. But there was no mention at all of a political quota system in Iraq that would give the Iraqi Shia 60 per cent of the seats in any future governing bodies, including the parliament and government.

In 1998 when the US Congress passed “Free Iraq Act”, only SCIRI and the Daawa Party supported by Tehran demanded a quota representation that would give them a decisive role in shaping the future of Iraq. From that time onward political representation on a quota basis was promoted by the American administration and supported by thinktank groups such as the American Enterprise Institute. Political opposition leaders from now on would be classified as Shia, Sunni and Kurd not as liberal, nationalist, social democrat and religious, a fine piece of political deception engineered by the US administration.

The fall of Saddam in April 2003 and the destruction of all Iraqi state entities resulted in an overall vacuum of power in Iraq. The Badr Brigade, the armed wing of SCIRI, was allowed by the Americans to cross the border from Iran into Iraq even before the fall of Saddam. Hizbullah of Iraq was helped by Iran to take up a strong position in the south, moving north and west from Al-Ahwar. The Muslim Ulama Association declared jihad. Muqtada Al-Sadr also declared jihad and started forming the Mahdi Army. Altogether there was an explosion in the number of militia organisations, with altercations daily taking place in the streets of Baghdad, Basra, Mosul and other Iraqi cities.

The trend to militarise Iraqi political and religious groups was essential for self- defence in the state of chaos that resulted from the occupation and Bremer’s decision to dismantle Iraqi institutions. That trend was helped by the fact that tons of ammunitions and arms were available everywhere in Iraq in deserted army camps and in locations known to the locals or to Baath party officials who then sold them on the market.

Within a few months after the occupation, all political parties and religious groups in Iraq had acquired their own military capabilities. Gangs and armed groups with no connection to political factions also appeared in the streets of Baghdad and many Iraqi cities, small towns and the countryside. Endless supply lines of men, arms, ammunitions and funds flowed through the borders from Iran providing armed militia with a secure lifeline enabling them to spread their influence.

These militia groups have become the powerhouse for violence and instability in Iraq. No political progress or reconstruction can be achieved without disarming these groups and eliminating their influence. The rivalry between political parties, especially the Shia ones, provides leaders of these parties with the justification to use arms in order to settle political differences and gain influence in the country.

The ongoing wave of violence in southern provinces and in Baghdad between the Iraqi government and American troops on one hand, and the Mahdi Army on the other, is one ugly feature of this political rivalry. The recent battle that started quietly in February and escalated to an almost all-out war reveals the deep political rift between two Shia political forces — the Mahdi Army fighting for the integrity of Iraq and its Arab identity and the alliance of SCIRI and the Daawa Party supported by Iran and US troops, that want a federal region in the south of Iraq parallel to the federal region of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Nuri Al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, who is exercising his authority as the high commander of the Iraqi Armed Forces, has targeted his opponents, telling them to “surrender or die”. Muqtada Al-Sadr, perhaps realising his strategic disadvantage in the fight, is calling for a political solution in order to spare the blood of his own people. The political landscape of occupied Iraq has been reduced to bullets in this tragic showdown.

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